Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

Only the top of one side of this tooth has been smoothed and polished; the remainder is rough and ridged as it came out of the sperm whale’s jaw. The smoothed portion has a deeply engraved head and shoulder bust of a young Abraham Lincoln. The portrait is framed by a rope, which forms the handle for a fasces, or axe bound with sticks. This was a Roman symbol of authority and a common American symbol of federalism. The portrait is inscribed “A.LINCOLN” on the bottom left side of the portrait. The shading and depth of the engraving, together with the absence of any pin holes indicate the hand of an experienced scrimshander.
Scrimshaw began in the late 18th or early 19th century as the art of carving whale bone and ivory aboard whale ships. The crew on whalers had plenty of leisure time between sighting and chasing whales, and the hard parts of whales were readily available on voyages that could last up to four years.
In its simplest form, a tooth was removed from the lower jaw of a sperm whale and the surface was prepared by scraping and sanding until it was smooth. The easiest way to begin an etching was to smooth a print over the tooth, prick the outline of the image with a needle and then “connect-the-dots” once the paper was removed. This allowed even unskilled craftsmen to create fine carvings. Some sailors were skilled enough to etch their drawings freehand. After the lines were finished, they were filled in with lamp black or sometimes colored pigments.
Scrimshaw could be decorative, like simple sperm whale teeth, or they could be useful, as in ivory napkin rings, corset busks (stiffeners), swifts for winding yarn or pie crimpers. The sailor’s hand-carved scrimshaw was then given to loved ones back on shore as souvenirs of the hard and lonely life aboard long and dangerous voyages.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Object Type
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 1/4 in x 2 1/2 in x 1 1/2 in; 13.335 cm x 6.35 cm x 3.81 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Cultures & Communities
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould

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